A central Pennsylvania town, overrun by outsiders looking to make a buck and leave, confronts the natural gas boom and its own unpleasant truths.
Fracking Site in Warren Center, PA via Wikipedia
The mountains of the Pennsylvania Allegheny Plateau are the rolling afterthoughts of the Appalachians. In 1989, when Dad left the Navy for the Reserve, we moved to a county with more deer than people, deserting Virginia. Three hours north of Harrisburg on a two-lane road, I thought we had reached Switzerland. I was seven years old.
Soon after we settled in, my mother and aunt took me on a hike. They wanted to look for eagles in Pine Creek Gorge, at the nearby state park. We weaved between oak and walnut trees along the rim, scanning between branches over the 800-foot abyss, hoping to see the gliding black cross with a telltale white head.
The gorge began as sediment, settled, and compacted into shale four hundred million years ago. Then, during the last ice age, glaciers carved out mountain drainages and left behind endless accordion ridges. A river runs through the chasm. The Iroquois called it Tiadaghton, meaning either “The River of Pines” or “The Lost and Bewildered River,” nobody knows which. Until the end of the Revolutionary War, the river—today called Pine Creek—marked the fissure between white lands to the south and Indian lands to the north.
North-central Pennsylvania marked the darkest spot of night sky on the East Coast, the last patch of wild sky, so black that the Milky Way cast a shadow, staving off the lights of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
The Seneca called the area around the gorge the “Dark Shadow,” because the hemlock and white pines grew so dense that light barely filtered through the branches. Early white explorers struggled to break through the forest, which was filled with ravens, elk, wolves, black bears, mountain lions. Just ten or so years ago, north-central Pennsylvania marked the darkest spot of night sky on the East Coast, the last patch of wild sky, so black that the Milky Way cast a shadow, staving off the lights of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Modern Pine Creek is an exercise in extraction and “renewal.” By the turn of the twentieth century, the canyon lost its old-growth conifers; endless board feet had gone downriver to the Chesapeake Bay for ship masts, leaving slopes of tree stumps behind. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees in the 1930s to replace the wasteland, and now there stands a second-growth deciduous forest. An infinite monoculture carpet of hay-scented ferns makes up the understory, overgrazed by predatory whitetail. Deer rule the woods. That’s the state motto: Virtue, liberty, independence, and whitetail. I didn’t know the forest floor could look any other way. I always thought it was fine because it was green.
Coal mines came and went, and a lumber boom, leaving half-inhabited villages around their deposits. Locals remember what mining brought to the state—jobs, followed by ghost towns, acid runoff, and hundreds of miles of sterile river. The state spent millions to stop the runoff; now our streams offer some of the finest trout fisheries in the East.
We saw no eagles in the gorge that day. We hiked back to the car. My mother and aunt wanted to stop for a beer at the Twin Pines Tavern, a white clapboard biker joint on Route 6 at the edge of the state forest, at the mouth of the gorge. Inside, smoke wrapped around us; grease and fuzz covered the tables. The bartender wore a braid and a black leather vest, one good eye giving us the once-over, one glass eye rolling slightly to the side. My mother waltzed in like she owned the place, bursting through the door in her alpaca sweater, jeans, and Bean boots. Her family had lived in this corner of Pennsylvania for a long, long time.
When she left, Mom wanted to live in a classy suburb, somewhere in Virginia or Massachusetts. She made it to Virginia, but ended up right back where she started, because her chosen Old Virginian chose Nowhere, Pennsylvania.
Once, when I was in my twenties, Mom and I tried to find the family homestead cabin, near World’s End State Park, 60 miles from the gorge and our own family’s homestead. We followed a rickety hand-drawn map scrawled by my eighty-two-year-old grandmother: Pass the shattered-window filling station, the oddly-shaped Kissing Rock sitting in the sharp road bend; go over the creek on a small wooden bridge that may or may not be there, depending on whether the water had washed it out in the spring. Then find the clearing surrounded by a wall of pines. There the cabin sits.
My grandmother told me that when her ancestors showed up, the woods were so thick with bears that the animals would crawl up the sides of the cabin. The men would shoot through the ceiling and blast the beasts right off the roof. When she visited the place as a child, she said, she could see patched pockmarks where the shots had gone through. That’s what they did, fought bears and Indians, bears and Indians, until neither were left, save trophy skins and wives.
I wonder whether to believe any of it. Who would shoot through the roof of a carefully chinked cabin?
We never found the homestead that day, just like we’d not found any eagles that morning in the canyon. At the bar, the ladies placed drink orders and gave me a quarter, telling me to pick a song from the jukebox. I loved to drop quarters into things the way all seven-year-olds do. I perused the selection and pushed the button. Nothing came from the beat-up machine but the persistent hum of the stuck turntable arm. I heard boots cross the floor. I looked up, and a glass eye gazed down at me. The bartender gently pushed me aside before he kicked the jukebox with the heel of his boot, grunting, “Come on, you ol’ bitch!”
It worked, and out came Sam the Sham’s wolf howl, cutting through the chest of every sober and drunken soul in the place: “Aaaaaooooooooohhhhh! Who’s that I see walking in these woods? Why, it’s Little Red Riding Hood.”
“Good song,” he said without looking at me, as he walked back to his post behind the bar. I was mystified, enamored. At that moment my standard for a good bar crystallized—a bar with antique taxidermy, parquet dance floors, bathrooms with claw foot tub urinals, condom machines that still bore Bridget Bardot advertisement stickers, a bar where you had to dust off your beer before you cracked it open and where fellow patrons offered to tattoo your arm on the tailgate of their pickup in the parking lot. My friends and I tried to get served at the Twin Pines in high school and that same glass eye looked back at us coldly; we spun on our heels and walked back out the door.
We were rebels in the spring and summer, warriors in waiting during the colder months. We hiked up creek beds buried between moss and ferns, pine-tree tunnels running through the mountain arteries, red-spotted newts shooting out from underfoot. We scrambled between limestone boulders, discovering leaf- and tree-branch debris huts made by who-knows-what. We drove the back roads at night looking for anything, flustering up owls on road prey, down Dead Man’s Hollow, where the corpse of a woodsman was discovered long ago, caught in his own steel-jawed bear trap. We rolled past the old millstone quarry, where a big, dark man-beast supposedly roamed the forest. It was said that if you crossed paths with him that he would skin you with a knife and hang you from a tree branch. No one stepped foot in his corner of the woods unless they were stoned out of their minds.
I thought I saw him once, this man-beast, in ’97, when I was 15. It was winter and a friend stole the keys to a hunting cabin owned by his father and some friends from Harrisburg. This was the thing to do in my hometown in the winter: monkey-wrench the cabins owned by Flatlanders. It’s hard to say exactly what qualified a Flatlander, but generally, it meant anyone from south of the I-80, the unofficial dividing line that separated Us from Them—the others who inhabited vacation homes, fished, and hiked, never waved when you drove past them, in SUVs they didn’t know how to shift into four-wheel drive, who never sent their children to our schools but wanted their children to see rural life, on the weekends, like going to an aquarium.
We gleefully invaded that cabin, emptied the liquor cabinet, threw a canister of tick powder in the microwave and blew it up, passed out on the mildewed tweed furniture. I awoke from a schnapps haze on the front porch swing, wearing a Three Mile Island blaze-orange security jacket found in an unlocked gun safe. A halo of snow marked where my head had lain on the wooden slats. A porch light shone across the dead, tall-grass yard to the edge of the woods, lighting it up like a chintzy nativity scene, vulgarly bright and exposing every puffy, whirling flake.
It was snow-silent, the silence of a blank movie reel where there’s just emptiness moving through speakers. I saw this man-best in tall silhouette, walking near the timber’s edge, sliding between the trees without catching a branch.
Pricks of snow touched my face. I brushed flakes from my hair. I was just a shitcanned teenager. I went inside to sleep before sneaking back home at dawn.
We weren’t completely feral. We could put on a good show for visitors—Laurel Queens and Little League, homecoming parades and county fairs. The town square marked the center, housing a fountain in which we would swim every summer, running down the main drag in our bathing suits, the town police on our tails as we dodged behind shrubs and hid under cars in the funeral home’s parking lot. We were living the high life; neighboring towns, crushed by the exodus of lumber and mining, called us Little Manhattan.
But I would be a liar if it were only remembered so.
The ground, the shale of the canyon, below the state forests, below the farms, holds miles of natural gas. Companies circled for decades, but they could never crack the ground because their methods couldn’t safely tap the gas trapped in tiny pores—until hydrofracking.
The governor decided to dub the region “The Pennsylvania Wilds” after remembering that we were up there, running loose in the woods, and making the first dignitary visit to Tioga County in years. “The Pennsylvania Wilds” was a marketing plan to seduce more leaf peepers, RV campers, and retirees. Outdoor gear shops replaced five-and-dimes; artisan shops filled the smoke shops. Someone even suggested building a casino at the edge of the state forest, near the gorge, to attract more tourists. The New York Times Real Estate section covered us, our affordable acreage plumed as weekend getaway properties. It was a compelling pitch, but the writer complained that the only chain restaurant option was a lonely McDonald’s.
There’s more. The ground, the shale of the canyon, below the state forests, below the farms, holds miles of natural gas. Companies circled over Pennsylvania for decades, but they could never crack the ground because their methods couldn’t safely tap the gas trapped in tiny pores—until hydrofracking.
Now they cut roads into the woods, fly choppers over pastures to haul in supplies, pour concrete well pads, erect compressor stations, and clear-cut miles of forest to run in a line. Millions of gallons of water are drawn from lakes, rivers, wetlands, and wells, and then mixed with sand, chemicals, and some other things that nobody knows and companies don’t have to disclose. This concoction is injected at high force through the massive concrete well, splintering layers of shale like a spoon cracking the surface of a crème brûlée. The toxic water fills the pores, thereby flushing out the gas.
Tankers blockade two-lane roads to collect and transport the gas and the toxic wastewater, if they haven’t built a cozy pit right next to the well where the sludge is laid to rest. They will restore the land, they promise: after forty years it will be just like it was before. Those whitetail, those bears, they won’t notice a thing.
Aquatic invasive species spread to local waterways through tanker hoses and equipment brought in from other states to draw water. The ground is stripped bare of vegetation; the hum of compressor stations is like a plague of locusts over the hills. They say the drinking water will be fine, even with all those cracks, all that shale turning to jelly. The only direct casualty we have seen thus far was a herd of dairy cows that drank from a contaminated watering hole.
Super-chain hotels are rising in former pastures to house workers from Utah, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Texas—a different kind of Flatlander. Fields were where we parked trucks in a circle, shined a spotlight in the middle of the ring, and watched one of our guys beat the living daylights out of some guy named Critter from the next town over. Fields were where everyone in the county crept on the first day of the season to fill their tag. Fields were where we held soirées, like the last party of high school, where one of my friends was found dead the next day after too much drinking, left alone to die in the jim weeds, swallowed by the tall grass on the edge of a pasture, as the rest of us careened our way home down the back roads. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a fracking pad in that pasture now, with men sitting in their big trucks surveying their work, stomping down the grass in steel-toe boots.
It’s fortunate that Americans think of water as an unlimited resource, because drilling companies can’t figure out how to cleanse the frack water and return it to the system. Thank goodness we walk on earth’s surface and needn’t see or feel the splintered remains of sediment and shale in our feet. Thank goodness for their regulations, their corporate self-regulatory honor, because the state wasn’t ready for this kind gas boom.
Thank goodness for our legislators, mindfully looking out for constituents, pondering which steps to take, perhaps as they sit front row at the Super Bowl in seats gifted by gas company executives. New York called for a moratorium while it considered how to balance economic benefit and environmental safety; Pennsylvania went to the Super Bowl. The Steelers were playing, after all.
Even the Flatlanders knew there was more to it than field and stream, that there was some sickly vibration.
Really, what’s to lose here? The East is no longer wild; it’s a whitetail in a petting zoo. We’ve still got the Wild West; we’ve still got Alaska; endlessly open places with real mountains that satiate our need for untouched space. The Appalachians are old, but the Rockies are so big.
While the vast majority of our nation, of our planet, can’t see the Milky Way even on a moonless night, we saw it clearly in our corner of Pennsylvania, and we signed over the ground from which we viewed it to the lighted towers of the energy boom, chains of night suns that will burn across the ridges.
This is who will support us: the Pennsylvania Texans with their miracle fracking technology. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, how else can you own your future? We all deserve to eat, to find some heat, to pull ourselves along as far as we can go.
Even the Flatlanders knew there was more to it than field and stream, that there was some sickly vibration. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but they had just enough instinct to make the decision not to stay—just to build a house on the river, or fix up an old farmstead, to enjoy the views and leave after the weekend.
I can’t blame them for not wanting to live among us. I would say most of us turned out just fine, but when I was in the tenth grade, a carnival ride operator knocked up a girl in the class ahead of me; an autistic girl in the class behind me was impregnated by her uncle.
There was a home economics program at school and the girls who wouldn’t go to college or a vo-tech program were trained in infant care, required to carry around robot dolls that cried and required diaper-changing and feeding. The battery-operated babies would cry during study hall and one would glance up from a calculus problem to watch the mother-in-training soothe the sobbing heap of plastic. It made them feel important to carry the screaming dolls; it was the only time anyone paid attention to them.
And fortunately, all the babies made it. But we couldn’t say the same for our neighbors, who would spend their time from cradle to grave in a welfare system that nobody wanted to pay for, not even the Bible beaters who demanded that every darkly conceived thing live, live, live.
My dad saw vets, discharged early for being loose cannons, and the guys who put in a few tours on the front lines in Vietnam and Iraq. He wrote letters to Washington explaining that you don’t have to have a bullet in your spine to be wounded… that things that can’t be counted or x-rayed are real.
I glanced at some classmates and wondered what bruised their faces, wondered why so many in my homeroom had to leave every morning to eat the state-funded cafeteria breakfast. I wondered why there weren’t any medical missions set up in our school gymnasium. They would be disgusted I even brought it up, would roll their eyes at me. None of them ever asked for pity, but I wondered what they had to see at home.
My father gave me a good idea. He was a psychiatrist and covered a few counties. He had lots of patients: grandmothers locked in closets and fed from plates pushed under the door, five-year-old girls raped by their stepfathers or real fathers, a boy sent to the grocery store by drunken parents in the middle of a blizzard; one day he tried to take a shortcut across the iced-over river and fell through, sank to the bottom.
My dad saw the vets, discharged early for being loose cannons, and the guys who put in a few tours on the front lines in Vietnam and Iraq. Over the course of several presidential administrations, my father wrote letters to Washington to explain to our perfectly sane Congress very slowly and carefully that you don’t have to have a bullet in your spine to be wounded. He tried to convince them that things that can’t be counted or x-rayed are real.
Dad once told me that he had to spend a lot of time in dark places, trying to mend the fractured connections of the human mind, trying to make it right “in there,” the depths of the deepest black forest. He taught me that while we may not be capable of or obligated to fix any of it, that we may, at the least, nod our heads in sincere acknowledgment of the horrors that others are born to bear. To take others’ burdens for granted, to not dare ask yourself if you’re capable of bearing the same, is to be the worst kind of coward. It didn’t make you a sobbing bleeding heart; it made you a brutal realist. I think he secretly wanted to fix it all, but he never could get to everyone. Just look at what happened to Clint.
I thought a roughneck had done it when I received the news of his death. But it was much worse than that.
I last saw him four years ago, when a group of us kayaked the river, through the gorge. We turned a bend and all of us lifted our paddles from the water, drifting without a sound. We passed through this still stretch, limestone walls with trickles of water and heavy green branches to our left, an open, grassy bank to our right, in which old hickories filtered the early evening sun through the crowns of their branches. The light was thick and gold, the air heavy with pollen and feathery seeds, and a massive mayfly hatch took flight from the stream’s surface in glimmering pieces like a soul leaving the body.
We floated through this silence with our eyes closed and toes dragging in the water, catching eddies and spinning backwards, turned forward again by the next whirlpool. I snapped a photo of Clint, who was slightly ahead of me, lit in a ball of dusk light.
Before we hit the next section of riffles, someone pointed to a branch overhead. A bald eagle observed us, slowly turning its head to follow our procession, its yellow eyes taking measure as we gazed up from below. I wonder what it saw in each of us as we floated by in single file.
After high school, Clint trained as a chef and then returned home to live on his family’s farm and start a barbecue business. He was a tall, broad guy, with a good dose of Cherokee in him and a round, soft face. Though we had known each other since the second grade, we were never best friends, but rather friends who could go years without seeing each other but knew everything the other had to tell about the time in between. He gave me books on synchronicity. He told me about a seminar he took with Adam Fortunate Eagle.
I sent a copy of the kayaking photo to his mother and went to visit her. She had moved out of their house and into a cabin on the river to get away. There wasn’t a picture of him in the room. I hoped to see some sign of him, a ghost, a feather blowing by the window, but there was nothing. The clock ticked and a cat tentatively stepped into my lap before curling into a ball. I had nothing to say.
The Priset family owned a construction business and lived outside town, where the Mennonites had their dairy farms and blueberry bushes. They struggled to make ends meet, but their oldest son Matt was a genius and supreme football player. He was accepted to Princeton on a scholarship and lauded in the town paper, loved by everyone, because few of us went to the Ivy League and nobody made it to Wall Street, but he did. His brilliance was the only symptom that something was amiss.
Instead of climbing the investment banking ladder, something snapped. Who knows if it was the move to city life—there are some medical studies that show that the environmental factors of urban settings may trigger a genetic pre-disposition for schizophrenia in a way that rural areas do not. But it doesn’t matter. The fact is that he was blindsided by his neurochemicals, breaching the cracks in a dam.
Matt couldn’t afford coverage for full-time institutionalization and signed himself out anyways, because even when you’re the worst kind of schizophrenic you’re still master of your own fate when it comes to getting mental healthcare. If you voluntarily check yourself in, you can voluntarily check yourself out. He moved home and worked odd jobs until he was fired from each one. He spent his time sitting at bars, talking to himself and scribbling Dalí-esque pictures of the dark shadows that spoke to him.
He sat at the Twin Pines on a winter night in January 2011. The smoke and fuzz and one-eyed bartender were gone; the bar was non-smoking, freshly painted, newly dressed with deer mounts and an Internet jukebox.
Matt took a liking to a pretty bartender there and as it happened, Clint had dated her a year or so previously. It was never anything serious. Several times, she was at home making dinner and looked up to find Matt standing there in the kitchen, watching her. She would tell him to get out and he would. He decided she was an angel who had been desecrated and that his own body was being taken over by Clint. It is this single fact, this small, glimmering moment of illumination in the midst of his splintered psyche—his logical association between the coveted girl and Clint—that pushed the jury toward first-degree murder.
Clint was making venison jerky in the kitchen with his back to the door when he was bowled over. His mother heard the ruckus. She grabbed an unloaded rifle. She ran downstairs. She saw. On the floor. Thrusting a knife into her only child.
She put the raw muzzle to his sternum. He dropped the knife. He took the rifle by the barrel and pulled it from her. He ran out the door, into the snow, into the forest.
What’s black and white and red all over, black and white and howling, howling to a thousand moons, a thousand stars, trembling over the pine canopy like glints of drawn arrow tips when the creaking, crimson snow steps of the man-beast rupture the silence, red-eyed and big—too big for the highest light atop the highest tower to illuminate, for the blighted waters to carry away, for the crushed-glass ground to inter, too big for the very forest, the very gorge, the very country which is its own constricting scope.
She told me that if Clint had seen it coming, he could have fought. She wanted me to know he was cold-clocked. She told me eagles were his favorite animals. I had nothing to say.
Clint is gone. Matt is sitting in prison for life, talking to the ghosts in his head. They were both short of thirty. They both deserved better deaths.
It came up over the holidays during a night at the bar. Someone cried and blamed Matt. We tried to tell her that two people were gone, that both families were broken, but she wouldn’t hear it. Clint was dead and Matt was alive and for this conviction she cried.
A group of Flatlanders on vacation sat at a nearby table and watched us. They had tried to flirt with us earlier and now stared uncomfortably at our silent and sobbing table. You had to wonder if they knew anything about having an eagle look down on your drifting soul as if you were a fish and it were Fate.
Besides, who wants to hear about these ugly things, the mangy fox that slinks between the white pines? We just hike here, we don’t live here. We just frack here, we don’t live here. Some people live in houses and others behind trailer walls. Some grow old and others don’t. Let the forest, the Dark Shadow, swallow them all.
S. Harrison Grigg lives and works in Bozeman, Montana. Her professional background is in conservation, as a ranch manager, endangered species researcher, and public educator. Her work has been published in a variety of outdoor publications.